Radioactive krypton assists in hunt for the world’s oldest ice


Ice core driller Tanner Kuhl with the blue ice drill on Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. The field camp is visible in the background.XAVIER FAIN

Radioactive krypton could help researchers track down the world’s oldest ice, filling a crucial gap in Earth’s climate history.

Scientists are currently searching for Antarctic ice at least 1.2 million years old. This period marks when the Earth’s hot and cold rhythms started shifting from a 41,000-year cycle to today’s 100,000-year cycle. Ocean sediments have yet to reveal the reasons for the change, but atmospheric gases and dust locked inside old ice could solve the climate mystery.

“There are interesting scientific questions we could answer if we had such old ice,” said Christos Buizert, lead study author and a paleoclimatologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

One way to find the oldest ice is to drill ice cores thousands of feet long, which involves expensive, years-long endeavors. But the longest ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland so far have uncovered only about 800,000 years of the planet’s warm and cold cycles.

[See Stunning Photos of Antarctic Ice]

Another solution is to analyze Antarctica’s blue ice. Typically, blue ice forms where mountains block flowing ice, forcing it to surge upward. This brings older ice from the bottom to the surface, where researchers can hack out chunks with a chainsaw or using a small drill rig. Blue ice is also free of surface snow because of wind and sublimation, when snow immediately vaporizes in the air. And just 15 feet below the surface, the ice is pristine, untouched by today’s atmosphere, Buizert said.

“You can just chainsaw it up and have as much ice as you want, but the difficulty is figuring out how old it is,” Buizert told Live Science’s Our Amazing Planet.

Scientists think Antarctica’s blue ice is at least 2.5 million years old in some spots, based on meteorites and volcanic ash layers, but they’ve had trouble proving it. The same chemical-dating techniques that work on soil and rock don’t translate well to ice.

Now, Buizert and his co-authors show analyzing rare krypton isotopes can accurately locate and date very old Antarctic ice. (Isotopes are versions of the same element with different numbers of neutrons in their nuclei.) The findings were published Monday (April 21) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This new krypton method is the most precise way of telling us the age of this old ice,” Buizert said.

Shipped by ‘air’

Buizert collaborated with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, who have built a special instrument that can measure vanishingly small amounts of radioactive krypton-81. This isotope forms when cosmic rays strike inert krypton gas in the atmosphere. Measuring the isotope’s decay provides an age estimate, good for about 1.5 million years. The dating technique has previously been tested on very old aquifers in the United States and Africa.

[Video: Ancient Antarctic Atmosphere Dated Via Krypton]

In Antarctica, krypton-81 becomes trapped inside air bubbles in snow and ice, then buried, starting its radioactive clock. Cosmic rays can’t penetrate thick ice, keeping the clock pristine.

For now, the technique is limited to testing big hunks of ice, to get enough krypton. It would be impossibly expensive to ship the ice to Argonne, so the team cooked down the ice at the glacier and mailed the extracted air back to Illinois. The team melted down many 660-pound chunks while camped at Antarctica’s Taylor Glacier.

“We spent two months carrying big chunks of ice around on a glacier, so we did build up some muscle mass,” Buizert said. “We never got anywhere near Superman, though.”

(Krypton, of course, is an inert gas, while kryptonite is a fictional green rock from the Superman’s home planet that disrupts the solar energies that give him his power here on Earth. And don’t forget the Fortress of Solitude, the ice castle usually located in the Arctic.)

But Argonne physicist Zheng-Tian Lu, a study co-author, said it wouldn’t be long until the lab is testing 44 pound samples from ice cores.

“Several years ago, when the work discussed in this paper was under planning, we would need hundreds of kilograms of ice,” Lu said.”Today, we need 40 to 80 kilograms [88 to 176 pounds] of ice for a Kr-81 dating analysis.We are implementing more improvements with the aim of reaching 20 kg in the near future.”

The 8 biggest mysteries of our planet


  • NTsOMZ

In 1970, geologists were still putting the finishing touches on plate tectonics, the model that explains how the Earth’s surface takes shape. More than 40 years later, many riddles still remain when it comes to our planet.

For instance, dozens of spacecraft have mapped the surface of Mars more accurately than Earth’s ocean depths. Here are some of Earth’s biggest unsolved mysteries.

  • 1. Why are we all wet?


    Scientists think Earth was a dry rock after it coalesced 4.5 billion years ago. So where did this essential chemical, H2O, come from? Perhaps an interstellar delivery system, in the form of massive impacts about 4 billion years ago. Pummeled by icy asteroids, the Earth could have replenished its water reservoirs during the period, called the Late Heavy Bombardment. But the beginnings of Earth’s water are shrouded in mystery because so little rock evidence remains from this time period. [50 Amazing Facts About Planet Earth]

  • 2. What’s down there in the core?

    NASA/JPL-Université Paris Diderot

    The stuff of legend and lore, Earth’s core has long fascinated writers as well as scientists. For a while, the composition of Earth’s unreachable core was a solved mystery … at least in the 1940s. With meteorites as proxy, scientists gauged the planet’s original balance of essential minerals, and noted which were missing. The iron and nickel absent in Earth’s crust must be in the core, they surmised. But gravity measurements in the 1950s revealed those estimates were incorrect. The core was too light.

    Today, researchers continue to guess at which elements account for the density deficit beneath our feet. They’re also puzzled by the periodic reversals in Earth’s magnetic field, which is generated by the outer core’s flowing liquid iron.

  • 3. How did the moon get here?


    Did a titanic collision between the Earth and a Mars-size protoplanet form the moon? There’s no universal consensus on this giant impactor theory, because some details don’t pan out. For example, the chemical composition of both rocky bodies matches so closely it suggests the moon was born from Earth, not a separate impactor. But a fast-spinning young Earth could have flung off enough molten rock during impact to form a chemically similar moon, other models suggest. And is there a relationship between these events and the rise of life on Earth, wondered Kevin McKeegan, a geochemist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “These are important planetary issues as we consider the possible histories of Earth-like exoplanets in the habitable zone,” McKeegan said.

  • 4. Where did life come from?

    Was life brewed on Earth or sparked in interstellar space and delivered here on meteorites? The most basic life components, such as amino acids and vitamins, have been found on  ice grains inside asteroids and in the most extreme environments on Earth. Figuring out how these parts combined to form the first life is one of biology’s biggest hurdles. And no direct fossil traces of Earth’s first inhabitants — which were probably primitive, rock-chewing bacteria — have yet been found. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

  • 5. Where did all the oxygen come from?


    We owe our existence to cyanobacteria, microscopic creatures that helped to radically transform Earth’s atmosphere. They pumped out oxygen as waste, and filled the skies with oxygen for the first time about 2.4 billion years ago. But rocks reveal oxygen levels cruised up and down like a roller coaster for 3 billion years, until they stabilized around the Cambrian Period about 541 million years ago. So did bacteria spike the air, or was there another contributing factor? Understanding the shift to an oxygen-rich Earth is a key factor in decoding the history of life on our planet.

  • 6. What caused the Cambrian explosion?

    Smithsonian Institution/Douglas Erwin

    The appearance of complex life in the Cambrian, after 4 billion years of Earth history, marks a unique turning point, said Donna Whitney, a geologist at the University of Minnesota. Suddenly there were animals with brains and blood vessels, eyes and hearts, all evolving more quickly than during any other planetary era known today. A jump in oxygen levels just before this Cambrian explosion has been offered as explanation, but other factors could explain the mysterious rise of the animals, such as the arms race between predator and prey.

  • 7. When did plate tectonics start?


    Thin plates of hardened crust knocking about Earth’s surface make for beautiful mountain sunsets and violent volcanic eruptions. Yet geologists still don’t know when the plate tectonics engine revved up. Most of the evidence has been destroyed. Just a handful of tiny mineral grains called zircons survive from 4.4 billion years ago, and they tell scientists the first continental-like rocks already existed. But the evidence for early plate tectonics is controversial. And geologists still wonder how continental crust forms, said G. Lang Farmer, a geochemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “It’s amazing to me that these fundamental aspects of how Earth works remain so enigmatic,” Farmer said.

  • 8. Will we ever predict earthquakes?


    At best, statistical models can tease out a forecast of future earthquake probability, similar to weather experts who warn of coming rain. But that hasn’t kept people from trying to predict when the next one will hit — with no success. Even the biggest experiment failed by 12 years, when geologists predicted an earthquake at Parkfield, Calif., by 1994, and set up instruments to catch the coming temblor. The actual quake hit in 2004. One of the biggest hurdles is that geologists still don’t understand why earthquakes start and stop. But there have been advances in predicting aftershocks and manmade earthquakes, such as those linked to wastewater injection wells (as used in fracking).

Chunk of Africa found underneath Southeastern US

This is an aeromagnetic map of the eastern margin of North America showing, among other things, Brunswick magnetic anomaly (BMA) and East Coast magnetic anomaly (ECMA).COURTESY OF THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA

Geoscientists have identified a chunk of Africa stuck onto the southeastern United States.

A long mysterious zone of unusual magnetism that stretches from Alabama through Georgia and offshore to the North Carolina coast appears to be the suture between ancient rocks that formed when parts of Africa and North America were pressed together 250 million years ago. If so, Africa could have left a lot more behind in the American southeast when the conjoined continents rifted apart and formed the Atlantic Ocean.

“There are some large faults in the magnetic data,” said geologist Robert Hatcher of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, regarding what is called the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly and other magnetic features in the region. “They have not been active for a very long time. They are strike-slip faults like the San Andreas today. But there’s also younger fall with opposite direction.”

Lost Continent Discovered Beneath Indian Ocean

The faults appear to be the remains of the collision and then messy divorce of Africa and North America.

“There was an attempt to rip away Florida and southern Georgia,” said Hatcher. “So you have a failed rift there. We know there’s a suture there between African crust and newer crust from the Appalachians. There are pieces of crust that started in Africa.”

A rift is what happens when the crust is pulled apart. When that happened 200 million years ago, 50 million years after African and North America collided, it appears to have started near the old collision zone, but then shifted to weaker crust to the east.

That rift zone split open and caused volcanic eruptions which created new oceanic crust — what is today the crust of the Earth under the Atlantic Ocean. The rifting continues today at what’s called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

“The age of the suture zone is believed to be about 250 million years old, but that’s not very well constrained,” said geologist Elias Parker, Jr., of the University of Georgia in Athens. He published a paper reviewing what’s known about the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly in the latest issue of GSA Today.

The big challenge in sorting out the history of the southeast U.S. is that there are intriguing magnetic signals, as well as gravimetric measurements, but there is not enough deep borehole studies or seismic data to confirm the faults and the proposed scenarios.

Photos: Life in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

“There are deeper faults and more shallow features,” said Parker. “It makes the interpretation really challenging.”

Among the seismic projects that could help increase the resolution of the structures, said Parker, is the Southeastern Suture of the Appalachian Margin Experiment (SESAME) and the Suwanee Suture and Georgia Rift Basin Experiment.

“This is just the start to understanding the structure of the southeast U.S.,” said Parker. “What I’m trying to do is come up with a simple explanation for this.”

Scientists watch enormous iceberg drift away from Antarctic glacier

This combination of Dec. 10, 2013, left, and March 11, 2014 photos provided by NASA shows a large iceberg separating from the Pine Island Glacier and traveling across Pine Island Bay in Antarctica. Scientists are watching the iceberg, which is bigger than the island of Guam, as it slowly moves away from the glacier, bottom right in December, upper left center in March.AP/NASA

WASHINGTON –  Scientists are watching an iceberg bigger than the island of Guam as it slowly moves away from an Antarctic glacier.

NASA scientist Kelly Brunt said it is more a wonder than a worry and is not a threat to shipping or sea level rise.

Brunt said the iceberg, named B-31, is about 255 square miles, roughly six times as big as Manhattan and as much as 1,600 feet thick. It broke off from the critical Pine Island Glacier last fall and researchers have been watching it move away ever since.

She said it is completely natural for icebergs to split off from glaciers in Antarctica, however this calving does shrink the Pine Island Glacier beyond its 30-year normal.

Tiny fossils found in China appear to be 500-million-year-old embryos


A Cambrian embryo fossil exposed by acid etching on rock. The polygonal pattern suggests that the embryo was in the multicellular blastula stage of development.BROCE ET AL

Tiny, spherical fossils found in southern China appear to be the embryos of a previously unknown animal.

The fossils come from the Cambrian, a period dating from 540 million to 485 million years ago and known for an explosion of diversity. Some of the organisms that appeared during the Cambrian, such as the bug-like trilobite, had exoskeletons and other hard parts that fossilized nicely. Others, including sponges and worms, were made of soft tissue that rarely preserves.

Researchers Jesse Broce of Virginia Tech, James Schiffbauer of the University of Missouri and their colleagues were searching for these rare soft-tissue fossils in limestone from the Hubei province of southern China when they found something even more rare: tiny spheres, including some with polygonal patterns on their surfaces. These itsy-bitsy fossils are most likely fossilized embryos, the researchers report in the March issue of the Journal of Paleontology. The fossils come from the third stage of the Cambrian, dating back to around 521 million to 541 million years ago.

[See Images of a Giant Cambrian Creature]

“We found over 140 spherically shaped fossils, some of which include features that are reminiscent of division-stage embryos, essentially frozen in time,” Schiffbauer said in a statement.

The researchers began their investigation by attempting to dissolve fossils out of the limestone from China’s Shuijingtuo formation with acid, but that method seriously damaged or destroyed the spherical fossils. Researchers then hand-chiseled the rock into millimeter- or centimeter-sized chunks, exposing the fossil surfaces manually.

From there, the researchers investigated the spheres with a variety of techniques, including slicing them into thin sections, which can be viewed under a microscope. The scientists also imaged the fossils with X-ray and scanning electron microscopy and X-ray techniques.

The results showed specimens with a phosphate-rich envelope surrounding a ball of calcite. (The organic compounds that once made up the embryos have long since mineralized.) Some of the spheres had polygonal patterns that look very similar to those seen on fossilized embryos from Markuelia, a Cambrian worm-like creature. The researchers believe that these specimens are blastulas, which are an early, multicellular stage of embryonic development.

It remains a mystery what these embryos would have grown up to become. Fossilized embryos from a variety of species pop up occasionally in the fossil record, from a 380-million-year old fish with an embryo still in her belly to dinosaur embryos still curled up inside their eggs.

Scientist: Gold crystal ‘too big to be real’ is real

  • Neutron diffraction data collected on the single-crystal diffraction (SCD) instrument at the Lujan Center, from the Venezuelan gold sample, indicate that the sample is a single crystal.LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY

It’s a single gold crystal that “seemed almost too perfect and too big to be real,” per a press release about it. Roughly the size of a golf ball, it was found in a Venezuela river decades ago, reports KRQE, and worth an estimated $1.5 million—so long as it was indeed a single-crystal piece, as opposed to the more typical multiple-crystal variety.

The 217.78-gram (roughly 7.7-ounce) nugget was one of four that the owner provided to geologist John Rakovan in a bid to determine its authenticity. But peering into the structure of a piece this big is something that the Miami University professor explains had never been done before.

Rakovan took the pieces to Los Alamos National Laboratory, whose Lujan Neutron Scattering Center offered him the chance to employ neutron diffractometry—the use of neutrons allowed him to penetrate several centimeters into the stone without damaging it, something X-rays and electrons could not.

What he and his collaborators found: Three of the four pieces were indeed single-crystal, including the large one in question. The press release notes that further analysis of the findings “will also provide an understanding of how the rare pieces may have formed before they were slightly deformed while being washed down in ancient stream sediments.” A scientific report is forthcoming.

(More wild gold news: Scientists have found gold in eucalyptus trees.)

More From Newser

Baby volcanic island eats its older neighbor


A new volcanic island, called Nishino-shima, emerged from the ocean on Nov. 20, 2013.JAPANESE COAST GUARD

As a seafloor volcano continues to erupt in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, a newborn island has swallowed its neighbor whole, images from space show.

In November 2013, a baby volcanic island rose from the sea out of a volcanic blast in the Bonin Islands about 620 miles south of Tokyo, on the western edge of the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a hotbed of seismic activity. Named Niijima, the newcomer boiled the sea and spewed steam, ash and lava fragments into the air.

Some thought the small black cone which sprouted just offshore of a larger volcanic island called Nishino-shima might slip back into the sea, vanishing under pounding waves. But Niijima kept growing. [Stunning Pictures: Japan’s New Volcanic Island]

Now a satellite image taken March 30, 2014, by the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8 shows that Niijima has actually overtaken Nishino-shima.

Together, the conjoined islands measure about 3,280 feet across, officials withNASA’s Earth Observatory said. The landmass has also tripled in height since December, now rising more than 196 feet above sea level.

The smashed-together islands mark the top of agiant submarine volcano that had not erupted since a major outpouring in 1973 to 1974, according to the Japanese Coast Guard. Lava flows are now most active in the southern portion of the new landmass, and plumes of ash continue to rise,with tiny particles seeding a stream of white cloud puffs overhead.

“The intermittent, pulsing shape of the cloud stream might be a reflection of the volcanic eruption itself,” officials with NASA’s Earth Observatory wrote. “Strombolian explosions are essentially bubbles of lava and gas rising from Earth’s interior in pulses. Underwater, sediment appears to be stirred up in a green plume that stretches eastward from the island.”

Glow-in-the-dark plants go on sale
  • Glowing Plant DIYSect.JPG

    Glow-in-the-dark plants like this one — an actual photo — are coming to your house this fall. (DIYSECT)

Like the glowing forests from the film “Avatar,” glow-in-the-dark plants are coming to your home. Growing a glowing tree may take a while, but you can order glow-in-the-dark seeds for Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant in the mustard family, right now.

According to the Kickstarter campaign that launched the company last year, planned to start shipping the seeds next week. But the company says it has postponed the release until the fall – not due to production glitches or a failure to shine, but because it has raised more money than it expected.

“We asked our backers a few months ago whether they wanted us to ship on time or to use the rest of the funds to improve the luminosity,” said Anthony Evans, CEO of the synthetic biology startup that has created the bioluminescent flora. “The overwhelming advice was to improve.”

To create a bioluminescent plant, scientists synthetically crossbred Arabidopsis and the glowing marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri. Simply inserting the bacterium’s DNA into the plant wouldn’t work – the genes required modifications to work correctly in the plant – so the team used the synthetic approach.

First, they assembled the genes virtually, using software called a genetic compiler, which lets scientists assemble DNA for new life forms on their computers. Then they sent the gene specs to DNA-assembling companies, which built the actual DNA.

To import the freshly built genes into Arabidopsis, the team used a bacterium — Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In nature, A. tumefaciens is a pathogen that inserts its genes into plant cells, causing tumorous growths. But its neutralized version can deliver the synthesized DNA into the host plant without hurting it.

The team inserted the genes into the leaves and assessed how well the plant adjusted and how much light it produced. Thanks to that extra funding, they’re now experimenting with a gamut of slightly varied DNA sequences to achieve the best glow.

“We plan to test about 1,500 sequences,” Evans said.

When they settle on the best DNA sequence, they will create the commercial glow-in-the-dark Arabidopsis using a tool called a “gene gun, which will bombard the plant with nanoparticles that deliver the DNA inside.

When the Arabidopsis blooms, it will produce seeds that will retain the new genes, and its offspring will glow in the dark. Right now the team is testing the second-generation Arabidopsis’ glowing aptitude.

When the seeds are finally sold to the public, it will become the world’s biggest release of a genetically engineered plant – a concept that doesn’t bode well with some environmentalists. Synthetic biology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are highly disputed concepts in modern science. There are concerns that GMOs pose risks to humans or may become invasive species.

When Glowing Plant first put its project on Kickstarter, an anti-synthetic biology group in Canada launched a “kickstopper” campaign to stop it. The effort amassed only $2,274. Evans’ team stopped a few bucks short of half a million, beating his original goal more than sevenfold.

Christina Holmes, who studies implications of biotechnology and plant breeding innovations on humanity at Dalhousie University in Canada, said that the risks are case-specific.

“Bluntly put, not all GMOs are equal,” Holmes said. “It depends on what plant you’re using, what genes you’re using, and what you’re using it for.”

The risks are higher, she said, when plants in question are intended for human consumption. But Arabidopsis is just a weed. In terms of invasive species danger, risks are also plant-specific. “This depends partly on how easy it is for the plant involved to spread its pollen and therefore its genes to other plants,” Holmes said.

In the case of Arabidopsis, the concerns are unfounded because it is primarily a self-pollinating herb, said Kyle Taylor, the molecular and plant biologist at Glowing Plant. “Ask any Arabidopsis biologist how hard it is to get them cross-pollinated, and they will tell you that it’s a non-trivial thing to do.”

Taylor added that it will be harder for the hybrid to survive, because light production takes extra energy, which weakens the plant. The hybrid may even confuse its own light with sunlight, which may negatively affect its metabolism. “If you put a regular Arabidopsis next to a glowing one,” Taylor said, “the glowing one looks less happy.”

Holmes says one may never know in advance how the new species will behave, but the luminous modification “won’t give it any better weed power” – compared to, say, canola that’s genetically modified to resist herbicide.

Evans predicts the glowing plant will make the concept of synthetic biology exciting and relatable to people. “The reason people have such mistrust in biotechnology is that they don’t understand it,” he said. “We believe that we can change the resistance to biotechnology by creating something tangible, something people can understand.”

So will we live to see Pandora’s forest-like trees that will replace street lamps, cut down on electricity usage and CO2 emissions?

“It’s gonna take a lot of work to get to that level,” Taylor says. “It’s biology, so things can pop up that we don’t fully understand.” But he adds, “We have some ideas how to get there.”

1,500-year-old Antarctic moss brought back to life

  • moss1

    Moss growing on Signy Island offshore of Antarctica. (P. BOELEN)

Moss frozen on an Antarctic island for more than 1,500 years was brought back to life in a British laboratory, researchers report.

The verdant growth marks the first time a plant has been resurrected after such a long freeze, the researchers said. “This is the very first instance we have of any plant or animal surviving [being frozen] for more than a couple of decades,” said study co-author Peter Convey, an ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey.

There is potential for even longer cryopreservation, or survival by freezing, if mosses are blanketed by glaciers during a long ice age, the researchers think. Antarctica’s oldest frozen mosses date back more than 5,000 years. [See Stunning Photos of Antarctic Ice]

The findings were published today (March 17) in the journal Current Biology.

Antarctic cryogenics
The moss comes from Signy Island, a small, glacier-covered island in the Drake Passage offshore of the Antarctic Peninsula. On Antarctic islands and the continent’s coastline, thick, lush moss banks thrive on penguin poop and other bird droppings. The moss acts like tree rings, with layer upon layer of fuzzy clumps recording changing environmental conditions, such as wetter and drier climate shifts.

The moss resurrection came about after Convey and his colleagues noticed that old moss drilled out of permafrost on Signy Island looked remarkably fresh. The deeper layers didn’t decay into brown peat (a type of decaying organic matter), as they would in warmer spots.

“In North America, you’ve got living moss on top of a dead peat base. It’s black, wet sticky stuff,” Convey told Live Science. “If you look at these cores [from Signy Island], the base is very well-preserved. They’ve got a very nice set of shoots.”

To test whether the Antarctic moss would regrow, the researchers punched into the permanently frozen soil beneath the living moss, removing cores that contained frozen soil, ice and plants. To prevent contamination, they quickly wrapped the mossy cylinders in plastic and shipped them back to Britain at freezing temperatures. In the laboratory, the team sliced up the core and grew new moss in an incubator, directly from shoots preserved in the permafrost. They also carbon-dated the different layers, which provided an age estimate for revived moss shoots.

The oldest moss in the core first grew between 1,697 and 1,533 years ago, when the Mayan empire was at its height and the terror of Attila the Hun was ending in Europe and Central Asia. In the lab, this moss sent out new shoots from its rootlike “rhizoids,” the researchers report. Because the growth comes directly from the preserved moss, and is the same species, it’s unlikely that spores from elsewhere contaminated the samples, Convey said. (Antarctic mosses don’t make spores.)

“We can’t be certain there is no contamination, but we have very strong circumstantial evidence,” he said. “Under a microscope, you can see the new shoot growing out of the old shoot. It is very firmly connected.”

Survival on ice
Many species other than mosses have unique survival strategies for the cold, such as hibernation in bears or bugs with built-in antifreeze proteins that prevent destructive ice crystal growth. Others, including plants, simply endure freezing. Microbes and plant genetic material have been resurrected from ancient Siberia permafrost, more than 20,000 years old. But until now, scientists had hard evidence only of creatures surviving about 20 years without water or warmth, Convey said.

Researchers recently suggested that Antarctica’s volcanoes radiate enough heat to provide refuges for life during Earth’s coldest climate swings, when ice ages send the continent’s glaciers far out to sea and ice covers the land. Species such as moss and bugs can’t escape to warmer climates when the ice advances, because they’re trapped by the vast Southern Ocean. Now, there’s another survival mechanism for mosses, Convey said.

“In Antarctica, you’ve got survival challenges over a lot of different time scales,” he said. “If you can get to 1,500 years, what’s the possibility of surviving an entire glacial cycle?”

Welcome to Hell: Photographer documents Africa’s e-waste nightmare

How Green


At the playground 

In pictures, Ghana’s e-waste disaster


Over the course of four days, 26-year-old German photographer Kevin McElvaney met hundreds of young boys and girls, most from the northern part of Ghana, who came south to burn cables and extract the copper from them. It can be sold on the market for pennies, and other electronics burned to extract bits of precious metals — at a terrible cost to the human body.Read more


It used to be wetlands, a recreation zone. Today the locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah.

Slag heaps of rusting electronics, old refrigerators and monitors are scattered everywhere in Agbogbloshie, a dumping ground in Ghana for electronic waste from the rest of the world. On the banks of a polluted river, smoking heaps of burning junk spew bilious, black fumes into the sky. To breathe is to cede years of your life.

The residents of Agbogbloshie are well aware of the poisons in the used electronics they scavenge. But for them, scavenging is the only way to make a buck.

“What you do to get money is what kills you,” one resident said recently. A translator went on to explain, “He knows that, yeah, I’m going to die from this someday. What can I do?”

Another explained the problem in broken English: “We are crying for work, suffering for work. How to eat is hard. There is no job enough, that’s why we come to south. And there is no job to the south. Only this.”

‘What you do to get money is what kills you.’

– Idris Zakarias, a 20-year-old resident of Agbogbloshie

Kevin McElvaney, a 26-year-old business administrator from Germany, recently went to Agbogbloshie to document its ecotech disaster. His portraits show the people working there, mainly kids between 7 and 25, struggling to make a living.

“Before you enter the burning fields of Agbogbloshie, you will recognize a huge market. On one side you can buy cheap local fruits and vegetables and on the other side you will see loads of manufacturers and scrap dealers. Go to these scrap dealers and you will see men sitting on broken TVs smashing their hammers and simple tools against any kind of car parts, machines and electronic devices,” he wrote recently on his blog.

Whose trash is it, anyway?
Over the course of four days, McElvaney met hundreds of young boys and girls, most from the northern part of the country, who came south to burn cables and extract the copper from them. It can be sold on the market for pennies. Monitors can be disassembled to extract bits of precious metals; electronic parts can be removed from gadgets and sold – but at a terrible cost to the human body.

“Injuries like sears, untreated wounds, lung problems, eye and back damages go side by side with chronic nausea, anorexia, heavy headaches,” he wrote.

And where does the trash come from? Despite efforts to police itself, the U.S. contributes as much to the problem as anyone, experts say.

“Much of the incoming material comes from the U.K., but a lot comes from the U.S.,” Jim Puckett, an activist with the non-profit watchdog group Basel Action Network and former toxics director for Greenpeace International, told by email.

“Last time I was in (nearby) Accra there was a lot of used electronic equipment from the U.S. government arriving there.… When after some time the computers do not sell in the shops, young boys with carts come by and pick them up and take them to the Agbogbloshie wetland/slum area to burn.”

The Basel Convention, organized by the U.N. and adopted in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, aims to prevent the trade and movement of hazardous electronic wastes. To date, 180 countries and the European Union have signed on to the treaty.

The U.S. signed the treaty in 1990, but Congress never ratified it.

According to State Department policy, shipping electronics for repair, refurbishment or remanufacturing “does not constitute movement of waste, and thus is not impacted by the Convention or its procedures.” In addition, it says, the Convention lacks authority to enforce its own policy.


Consumers and companies looking to safely e-cycle used electronics can turn to the e-Stewards program from the Basel Action Network, which certifies programs that responsibly recycle and reuse used electronics. Learn more

A number of U.S. businesses have sprung up that export e-waste to other countries — the repair and remanufacturing the State Department mentions. Good Point Recycling, for example, processes 13 million pounds of electronics annually. Robin Ingenthron, the founder of the company, told the Basel Convention and overeager activists have led to short-sighted policy. California recently shredded $100 million worth of reusable gear, rather than export it as “e-waste,” he said.

“As someone who lived in Africa for two and a half years,” Ingenthron said, “if you just go to World Bank statistics, Lagos (in Nigeria) had 6.9 million households with televisions in 2007. So what do you expect to see in Lagos dumps?”

And the photos from Agbogbloshie?

“The photos show stuff that’s been there for 15 years,” he said.

Quantifying the problem
Rather than the Basel Convention, the U.S. relies upon the electronics industry to police itself, through guidelines such as theNational Strategy for Electronics Stewardship, a 2011 policy document from the EPA. (The EPA did not respond to questions in time for this article.) It offers recommendations, not regulations.

As a result, activists say, the U.S. is essentially blind to the problem. We have no way to quantify the e-waste we export.

“When a nation ratifies the Basel Convention, they are required to monitor their export of hazardous waste,” said Sarah Westervelt, stewardship policy director with Basel Action Network. “We are not monitoring our export of this particular hazardous waste. We literally are not quantifying it.

“If we were to ratify the convention, we would be required to measure so we could quantify.”

The U.S. recently set out to do that. In December, the National Center for Electronics Recycling, working with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and funded by the EPA, released a report titled “Quantitative Characterization of Domestic and Transboundary Flows of Used Electronics,” which sought to measure the flow of waste from the U.S.

“We really don’t have a good handle on what exactly … is getting exported every year,” Jason Linnell, executive director of NCER and the report’s author, told “We needed to find a good way to get more data about what is actually going out of the country and set up a way to measure things going forward.”

The report found that 66 percent of e-waste in the U.S. is collected, but just 8.5 percent of it is exported as whole products. This represents the low end of what’s being exported, Linnell acknowledged, since the analysis relied on self-reports from the industry. Still, he thinks there has been progress.

Over the last 15 years, he said, “I tend to think the industry has come a long way. Blatant exporting … that’s harder to do now than it ever was.”

But Westervelt blasted the report and its methodology, saying it’s pointless to rely on the industry to report its own exports.

“Unfortunately the report is incredibly flawed,” she said. “When they have this voluntary survey that asks, ‘are you exporting to Africa,’ you’re not going to be getting reliable response.”

No end in sight
Meanwhile the volume of e-waste remains incredibly high. According to EPA estimates, 1.79 million tons were trashed in 2010 — not including “TV peripherals” like VCRs, DVD players and so on.

And that number has likely soared, thanks to the explosion in mobile phones. But because the U.S. is the only developed country that hasn’t ratified the Basel Convention, it is in a unique position: It’s perfectly legal to load up a container ship with hazardous junk and sell it to the highest bidder. Once the container ship enters international water, though, it falls under the umbrella of international law — where it’s illegal for about 143 developing countries to accept it. Many do anyway: e-waste is a lucrative business, after all.

“Companies are making money off this on both ends. But they’re causing these irreparable long-term impacts,” Westervelt said.

Ingenthron pointed out that Basel Action Network is one of those companies making money — its e-Stewards program certifies recyclers and exporters, and charges them a hefty fee to be listed in its database, he alleged.

“They’re charging hundreds of thousands to certify companies for export,” he said. “None of that money goes to Africa.

“And that’s our objection to these photos. Its poverty porn.”


Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.